Dear Designer,

What should my portfolio look like?

This might be the most frequent question I get. I asked a couple of design leader friends and they couldn’t be sure but they were pretty confident this one was up there for them too. We covered a lot of what I usually tell folks in the last post, What are hiring managers looking for? It’s come up in a couple places in addition to some questions that came in initially:

For case studies, what is the best length? And what is a good balance of visuals and text? Some bootcamps say lots of detail and storytelling, but some pros say even 500 words is too long, or “no one wants to see your wireframes.”

So assuming you’ve followed all my advice from the last post about your portfolio being all about you, lets dig into some more nitty-gritty. Before we jump in I’m going to tell you the answer up front, so keep this in mind. It’s honestly probably the most important piece of advice I give designers at all levels regularly:

Know the answer to the question, “What is this for?/Why am I making this?” and you will always know the answer to all the the stuff I’m going to spend a few hundred words writing below.

What should be in my portfolio?

This may seem like a no-brainer. Your work goes in your portfolio, but how do you present it? That ultimately depends on what type of designer you are and what type of designer you’re trying to be. Lets throw one more variable in just to make it fun, it also depends on what type of companies you’re trying to get to hire you.

“Case studies” are the go to format choice for anyone trying to enter the UX universe. I suspect, although I haven’t verified this, that even when it comes to physical product design a story about what challenges you overcame and how you decided on the direction you ultimately went is preferable. And if we think it through a little (Remember: What is this for?) that makes sense. Product designers are hired to make a bunch of decisions about how something will be made in response to the challenges of who that thing is for and who is making it. So a story about how you made those decisions is the most important thing for you so show. The decisions are the work, the drawings and prototypes are just a record of those decisions. Most importantly you didn’t actually make the final thing that people experience, someone else did (developers, factory workers, construction crews, etc.)

If you’re a designer working in media, this format is probably not going to work as well for you, mostly because you are the one making the final thing that people get to experience: the drawing, the animation, the photograph, the book, the poster, etc. That doesn’t mean that a story about how you thought through stuff and how you got to the finished thing isn’t important, but it does mean that getting to see the finished thing is much more important, and your portfolio should reflect that.

The rest of this is going to focus on product design, partly because that’s where my area of expertise is and partly because the other type of portfolio is much more straightforward to make, imo.

How long should my case studies be?

Not any longer than they need to be. Most case studies are way longer than they need to be for one of a few reasons:

  • The author isn’t sure what they’re trying to say so they just do a memory dump of everything that happened in the project
  • The author only wants to have to write one case study so they write the longest version and show that everywhere, even when it’s not appropriate
  • The author is trying to tell multiple stories at the same time, so it’s confusing and hard to follow

If you’re a student or otherwise just getting started in your career, my money is on your problem being the first one or the third one. You need to know what your story is for each case study, and you need to remove everything that doesn’t support telling that story. A case study is not a history report, it’s a sales pitch.

You may first need to answer the question “What kind of designer am I trying to be?” to be able to tell a tight story. If you’re trying to tell a story about being a Product Designer who is also a User Researcher who is also a Front-end Developer who is also an Illustrator, your case studies are going to be a mess. If you really are all of those things first off, congratulations I’ve been doing this for 2 decades and I’m maybe two… two and a half of those things at best. Secondly, you need to showcase them separately. Make one of them the focus and let the others be background details. Hierarchies are important in story telling too. Trying to tell a story about how you’re four flavors of expert is a recipe for a confusing and looooong story.

Here’s how I approach most of my professional writing (I use this method to write blog posts too, btw): Make an outline that is a bulleted list. Those are your section headings. Make sure that list makes sense as a cohesive story. Fill in the relevant details for each section heading. Call it a day.

If you’re in the “only want to have to write one case study” camp, meet me in the next section because we’re gonna talk about why you even have an online portfolio in the first place and it’s going to show you why “write once, use everywhere” is a bad plan.

Someone told me my case studies should be super short and someone else said they need to be really detailed. HALP!!!

How long and what your case studies should look like depends on where they are going to live. Product designers actually have to maintain two portfolios in addition to their resumes, but a lot of designers (and a lot of inexperienced hiring managers) tend to think it’s just the one portfolio.

The first portfolio you have to maintain is the one you send in advance of people meeting you. We’ll call this your Advance Portfolio. This is likely a website you’ve made and maintain but it might also be a PDF you send out with your resume. What is this portfolio for? Why do we make this? To open doors. This is the thing that hiring managers are looking at to help them decide if they want to call you. (If this is a good practice or not is a separate discussion.) So, as human-centered design professionals, what do we know about who are users are? Hiring managers are usually: busy, looking at a lot of portfolios when they’re hiring, biased toward the kind of work they do themselves, and in some cases not even designers. Knowing this about our users, we should design an experience that meets them where they are and helps them quickly see how awesome we are and how applicable our skills are.

tldr; The portfolio you send out to get an initial call-back should be brief and to the point. It should be skimable and it should make it nearly impossible to miss the important parts of each story.

The second portfolio is the one you use while you’re interviewing. We’ll call this your Interview Portfolio. Gotta do a deep-dive into a project? That comes out the Interview Portfolio. Asked to make a presentation to a random assortment of your future coworkers about a project you’ve done? Interview Portfolio. Need to reference something in an interview and you want to pull up the case study to show the relevant detail? You guessed it, that comes out of your Interview Portfolio. Once your foot is in the door you need the longer, more detailed case studies to actually answer people’s questions about your skills and experience. This is no different than corporate reports having executive summaries. Your Advance Portfolio is the executive summary. Your Interview Portfolio is the full report chock full of details and appendices and whatever you need to tell the story. But the longer case studies still have to tell a tight story about your skills and experiences. They should focus on the most important things. Do not make them meandering memory dumps about everything that happened in a project. A case study is not a history report, it’s a sales pitch!

I used the report with an executive summary comparison for a specific reason and that’s because I’m pretty sure your next question is going to be

How am I supposed to maintain two portfolios?! It’s already a ton of work to maintain one!!!

Yep. It is. I hate it too. But, the way you make it easier for yourself is treating that Advance Portfolio as a summary. Write up your detailed, longer case study. Then read it and write a high level summary of it, hitting all the important points, dropping the details that you don’t need to be able to understand the story. That summary is your Advance Portfolio.

So, there you have it. Like any other design project you do, understanding what your portfolio is for and who is going to be using it makes it much simpler to figure out what it should be.

Until next time 🤙